‘The struggle is real’ year after triple loss
“The struggle is real” was one of Lauren White’s favorite sayings.
When the 14-year-old heard someone complain about a bad hair day—or faced her own dramas, such as having to clean her room before she could go anywhere—she summed up the moment with those four little words.
Sometimes she smiled when she said it. Other times, she looked serious. She proclaimed it out loud and in text messages, about homework, school or anything going on in her life and those around her.
In the last 12 months, Lauren’s favorite phrase has taken on a meaning she never could have imagined.
A year ago today, Lauren Allie White and her mother, Bethany Dawn Dempsey, along with 8-year-old Abigail Randi–Mae “Abby” Cullen, were killed in a car crash.
The three were in the back seat of a Toyota Camry driven by Mike Cullen, Abby’s father and Bethany Dempsey’s boyfriend.
His teenage son, Michael, known as Bubba, was in the front with him.
Bubba and his sister, Abby, had just visited their mother in Florida, and the group was heading home to Warsaw from the airport in Baltimore.
Their car was stopped at a traffic light in Millersville, Md., when a flatbed delivery truck plowed into the back of it. The crash triggered an eight-vehicle pileup that one Maryland police officer described as the most horrific wreck he had ever seen.
The single moment in time didn’t just alter the lives of those in the Toyota.
It impacted the futures of everyone who loved them.
A 10-year-old boy was left without his mother and big sister.
A 15-year-old boy lost the little sister who gave him the nickname that will probably last a lifetime.
A little angel was taken from one mother; a grown daughter from another couple.
Two fathers had to bury their princesses, and three King George County residents said goodbye to their only granddaughter.
“When we started a year ago, facing life as we had never known it before, we did not know how hard this journey was going to be,” said King George Sheriff Steve Dempsey, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed in the crash.
He and his wife, Charlene, shared some thoughts through emails because they said it’s too hard to talk about them.
They’re grateful for the faith that’s sustained them and the love and support from friends and the community.
“But as our granddaughter Lauren would tell us, the struggle is real,” the Dempseys wrote in an email. “We have found that to be so true.”
‘A MILLION YEARS AGO’
Mike Cullen doesn’t remember anything about the Aug. 27, 2013, crash, or the events leading up to it. He suffered a badly broken arm and trauma to the head and was hospitalized for about 70 days.
He didn’t make it to any of the funerals or see the memorial of flowers and teddy bears people set up in his front yard in honor of little Abby.
He had short-term memory problems to the point he didn’t fully realize, until November, that he had lost his daughter, girlfriend and her daughter.
He still gets therapy for his back and arm. He returned to work in March and has nothing but gratitude toward the people at Whelan’s Marina in the Northern Neck, where he’s a mechanic.
Staff and campers collected money to pay his mortgage for six months.
Mike also is grateful that his son, Bubba, has made a complete recovery. He’s 16 and enjoys riding dirt bikes and spending time with his girlfriend.
Shannon Cullen, Mike Cullen’s ex-wife, was living in northwestern Florida a year ago. She and her children, Bubba and Abby, had enjoyed a month-long visit, including trips to Disney World and the beach.
“Some days, it seems like it was a million years ago, and some days, it seems like it was just yesterday,” she said about their last vacation together.
‘A ROCK FOR EACH OTHER’
Mike and Shannon Cullen met as teenagers, were married for 20 years and lived in Warsaw until their separation in December 2011.
After their divorce, they never hated each other as some couples do, he said. They talked regularly about the kids and how the other was doing.
When he and Bethany Dempsey became a couple, they made their home in the same Warsaw house where he had lived with his ex.
Postings on Bethany’s Facebook page illustrated how happy she was and the kind of wedding she wanted. Eleven days before the crash, she dedicated a post to Mike that read: “I take you to be my best friend, my faithful partner and my one true love.”
When the tragedy took away loved ones, it brought the Cullens together again.
Shannon moved back to Warsaw after the accident.
“It was something I had to do,” she said. “Somebody needed to take care of little and big Michael.”
These days, the two support each other “as best we can,” she said.
“We are a rock for each other, we lean on each other quite a bit,” he said, adding they’re “working on” becoming a couple again.
Mike said photos of Bethany and her children remain in the house.He said Shannon understands their need to be there.
“There’s not any secrets,” he said. “I love Bethany, I always will. I love Shannon and I always will. If anybody can’t understand that, I really don’t care.”
How does a person put into words the way life changes after the loss of a child?
That’s how James and Jennifer White responded to questions about how they’re doing.
The Whites married in April 2013. Lauren and Logan, James’ children from his marriage to Bethany Dempsey, stood up with him at the wedding.
Jennifer walked down the aisle with her father on one side and her son, Hunter, on the other.
“We were just starting our new lives together when everything we knew was changed forever,” Jennifer said in an email.
All three children lived with the Whites in King George, where she teaches fourth grade and he’s a contractor at the Navy base. These days, the couple copes with the reminders of their loss every day.
There are two kids at the dinner table, to take to practice, to get ready for school when there should be three.
James should be teaching Lauren how to drive and “we should be planning her 16th birthday next month,” Jennifer said.
Logan, 11, is a social child who speaks openly about the loss of his mother and sister, his family said. He’s doing well in school and keeping busy with three sports a year.
“He’ll tell you himself that he had to grow up way too soon,” his stepmother said.
‘THE LITTLE THINGS’
Like the Cullens, James White said he thinks about his daughter all the time. It’s not just the obvious moments, like when he sees King George High School’s Lady Foxes softball team, on which Lauren was a pitcher.
Or, when football season starts and he remembers the way she insisted on going to every game her freshman year.
“It’s the little things that make me miss her the most,” the father said.
The family will be watching TV or getting ready to sit down to dinner, and he’ll be expecting her to walk in the door from practice. He’ll be waiting for that smile and those sparkling blue eyes that run in the Dempsey family.
“Then reality sets in and I realize that will never happen again,” he said.
HIS ‘DIRT BIKE DIVA’
Mike Cullen said he and his son are building a show truck, a Suzuki Samurai, in Abby’s memory. She had seen one online that she liked and already picked out bright pink as the color, along with the rims, motor and wheels.
She was a cheerleader, a softball player and his “dirt bike diva,” the father said.
“She would put on a dress and high heels and get her nails done—and play in the mud,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bethany Dempsey was the “consummate girlie–girl,” said her sister, Christina Dempsey. When Bethany, a longtime cheerleading coach who enjoyed being involved in the community, became a part of Abby’s life, the two clicked.
“Abby was gorgeous, and she loved to be dolled up, and Bethany had a field day with her,” Christina said.
Bethany was five years older than Christina, and she loved dressing up for beauty pageants as much as her sister despised it.
“We fought like cats and dogs,” Christina said. “But if anybody ever tried to mess with either one of us, it was game on.”
Like her father, the King George sheriff, Christina often handles tragedy in her work life. She’s a firefighter and paramedic at Quantico Marine Corps Base, and he’s been in law enforcement for 34 years.
Both have tried to ease the suffering of the less-fortunate and victims of accidents or crimes.
But nothing in their backgrounds prepared them for the magnitude of loss a person faces under these circumstances, she said.
“My heart has always been heavy for families that have lost loved ones in tragic situations,” the sheriff said. “Now it’s even heavier.”
‘3 RIBBONS FOR 3 REASONS’
There can’t be too many firefighters who wear zebra-print shorts and have purple streaks in their dyed black hair.
Christina Dempsey does—for reasons far beyond fashion.
Purple was her sister’s favorite color, and Abby was fond of animal prints, especially zebras. The studs in Christina’s ears, the cover on her phone and the pitchers and pots on her porch are all lime green because her niece, Lauren, loved the color.
Christina has spent much of the last year making remembrance ribbons and magnets featuring the shades and stripes “the girls” loved. She started an awareness campaign and Facebook page called “3 Ribbons for 3 Reasons” that she hopes will bring attention to the families left behind when multiple people are killed in auto accidents.
She plans to speak to the Virginia General Assembly next year about making August awareness month throughout the state.
She would like to form a support group that helps families cope emotionally and financially with such devastating losses.
She would also like to prevent these kinds of accidents from happening.
The firefighter said that people tend to think of cell-phone talking or texting as the only forms of distracted driving. She wants them to realize that eating, putting on makeup or reading directions are also activities that take drivers’ eyes off the road.
So do students in King George High School’s DECA program. Last year, the marketing students chose distracted driving as their campaign and asked teens and adults alike to sign a pledge, promising they wouldn’t drive while distracted.
DECA member Clara Brabo told a gathering in April that the club picked that cause because of the devastation to the Dempsey, White and Cullen families.
THEIR LIFE SENTENCE
Jason Nathaniel Pagayoya, the truck driver charged in the accident, lives in Waldorf and is 38. That’s the same age as Mike Cullen—and Bethany Dempsey, were she still alive.
Pagayoya faces three counts of criminal negligent manslaughter with a vehicle, reckless driving and negligent driving.
Last August, the Anne Arundel County police report said driver error appeared to be the cause of the crash. It also said drugs and alcohol didn’t appear to be factors. And, while the passengers in the Cullen car all wore seatbelts, their injuries were so severe “due to the impact of the crash,” the report stated.
Pagayoya has pleaded guilty to several minor traffic violations since 2011 and one criminal charge of possession of marijuana, according to Maryland court records.
Since the wreck last August, he was found guilty of driving with a suspended license in April and not wearing a seatbelt in May.
His trial in the fatal crash case has been postponed several times and was recently rescheduled for February in Annapolis.
The Maryland state attorney’s office said it took that long to find a time for all the parties involved.
Jennifer White, Lauren’s stepmother, said the families are devastated to have to wait 18 months for their day in court.
“We were really hoping that this trial would be closure to that aspect of this nightmare,” she wrote in an email. “However, we realize that whatever happens to [the driver] is just a fraction of time compared to the life sentence we all serve.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
KILLED AUG. 27, 2013
BETHANY DEMPSEY, 37. She was the daughter of King George County Sheriff Steve Dempsey and his wife, Charlene, and older sister of Christina Dempsey. She had two children,
Lauren and Logan White. She was the girlfriend of Mike Cullen, and the two lived in Warsaw with his children. She worked at a store in Montross, selling combat gear.
LAUREN WHITE, 14. She was the daughter of Bethany Dempsey and James White, stepdaughter of Jennifer White, big sister of Logan and stepsister of Hunter Moison. She was the only granddaughter of Cindy White and Steve and Charlene Dempsey. Lauren lived in King George with the blended White family.
ABIGAIL CULLEN, 8. She was the daughter of Mike and Shannon Cullen and little sister of Michael, whom she had nicknamed “Bubba.”